Disclaimer: This is a very politically charged piece. If you’re of the opinion that comics should not be political, I recommend also avoiding Captain America Comics #1, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, etc. You should be safe sticking with Garfield strips.
For many, the run on Amazing Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski is the best of the modern era. It’s first arc, “Coming Home” is considered one of the definitive Spider-Man stories. However, early into JMS’ run, the world was rocked by the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. Like the rest of the world, the heroes and villains of Marvel – many of whom reside in New York City – felt the impact of these attacks. To their credit, Marvel interrupted the story of Amazing Spider-Man – their flagship title – to address the terror attacks in issue #36. Being the seventeenth anniversary of that tragic, horrible day, I decided to revisit this issue, as few pieces of pop culture have been able to truly capture the emotions of that moment in time. What unfolds is a beautiful story of people coming together. However, looking at it through the lens of 2018, it is a reminder that we as a country have become almost irreparably divided.
It is difficult to imagine a world where Americans could come together to stand united against a common enemy. Even though our nation’s name is “The United States,” that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, it’s easy to look at The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal and think this is a recent development, but it’s been the case for a long time. At the very least, it’s been the American status quo since the Tea Party reared its ugly head, demonizing those that did not take the most far-right stance on the political spectrum. A recent photo from a Donald Trump rally showed supporters sporting shirts saying “Better Russian than Democrat.” Seventeen years ago, it was unfathomable to think that we would rather side with a foreign power that has attacked our country over our fellow citizens, but that is the world we live in. In revisiting Amazing Spider-Man #36 in honor of September 11th, it is depressing to not only revisit these tragic events, but also to compare it with the state of the world today.
For those that have not read this issue, do yourself a favor and seek it out. It’s only a couple dollars on Comixology, or those with Marvel Unlimited can read it right now. The writing from JMS – which is largely done in the form of a poem – is as spectacular as it is moving. His words capture the mood of the moment – somber, reflective, resilient, and ultimately hopeful. To often, these characters are placed in potentially world-ending scenarios and no one bats an eye. However, JMS manages to capture the true horrors of 9/11 in a completely sobering sequence featuring Spider-Man and a child lost without his father. It is absolutely heartbreaking, and serves as a reminder that in these battles between the powerful – be them costumed characters or real-life foes – it is often the innocent that suffers the greatest.
Straczynski’s script is paired wonderfully with the art of John Romita Jr, who at the time was at the top of his game. Each panel is dripping with raw emotion and a keen attention to detail. Whether its something as little as Spider-Man and the X-Men’s Cyclops working hand-in-hand with first responders or the statement-making closing splash, Romita delivers the goods.
For those that may be too young to remember (or weren’t even born), Amazing Spider-Man #36 captures the camaraderie that took place in the tragedy’s fallout. It didn’t matter if you were a liberal or conservative, black or white, we stood tall and united against a hostile enemy. We picked each other up because we were all a part of the American family. It may be shocking to believe, but we weren’t at each others throats because of different political ideologies. Yet seventeen long years later, and politics has become a team sport. Is this candidate for office qualified? Do they represent the best of us? No, but he’s the candidate for the political party I root for, so he gets my vote no matter what. We will defend a hostile foreign power as long as it helped the person from the right “team.” Having just reread Amazing Spider-Man #36, to see us devolve like this is sickening.
Should another national tragedy unfold on the scale of 9/11, is it possible for us to rally together? While the optimist in me wants to say “yes,” the truth is probably no. Each side of the aisle will try to blame the other for allowing it to happen. Citizens will argue back-and-forth over which political alignment is at fault, and the perpetrators will escape without a day in the court of public opinion. I’m not going to pretend I have solutions, because the problems facing America can be solved if everyone stopped being stubborn and listened to reason. Then again, we as a people have never been good at listening, instead choosing to forge our own path forward, which history has shown to be a double-edged sword. And right now, we are seeing the downside to “going with your gut” rather than listening to facts and reason.
With another anniversary of 9/11 passing by, Amazing Spider-Man #36 remains as poignant and affecting today as it did back when it hit stands in November 2001. But, as evidenced by the preceding paragraphs, it can be a frustrating experience. Stracynski’s hopeful attitude and Romita Jr’s emotional artwork read as artifacts of a bygone era, when people could look beyond their differences and see commonalities. I’m not completely naive, I’m aware jerks have always existed. But can we ever come back from how far we’ve fallen? I’m normally an optimist, but I doubt it.